Celebrity-in-chief: is Trump the only true star left?

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L ast week, the world was an unstable place in need of serious attention from the US president. America’s proposed steel tariffs had become explosively controversial . Russia was under fire for “laundering” illicit North Korean coal exports . China’s National People’s Congress met to introduce a gigantic constitutional change permitting a Mao-style life presidency – and Donald Trump tweeted : “Lowest rated Oscars in HISTORY. Problem is, we don’t have Stars anymore – except your President (just kidding, of course)!”

That little faux-modest crack at the end: was that the president being cheerfully magnanimous in his zeitgeist victory? Could he simply be right? Is Donald J Trump, in all his gurning panto villainy and unrepentant, unbecoming enthusiasm for his own prestige, the modern world’s single authentic star? The celebrity-in-chief?

The Oscars’ audience-viewing figure of 26.5m was indeed a record low, down 20% on last year. As far as Donald sees it, all those woke stars just got the beaming smiles wiped off their faces – a bunch of complacent, overpublicised liberals irrelevant to the vast swathes of ordinary Americans who put him in the White House. Never mind Wall Street v Main Street – how about Rodeo Drive v Main Street?

‘The lowest rated president in history’ … how Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel hit back at Trump. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel hit back hard with the obvious point: “Thanks, lowest rated President in HISTORY.” Trump has terrible poll numbers: approval ratings at the lowest level for any modern president at this point in his first term. Kimmel also made the point that ratings for big TV events generally are way down since the invention of Netflix , and perhaps since the internet itself. The idea of people all getting together and devotedly watching the Oscars is old-fashioned. Even the people watching would have been double-, even triple-screening, with their smartphones and tablets on the couch next to them: tweeting gags and checking everyone else’s. Or they didn’t have a TV on at all while it was happening. They read a panoply of blogs and vidblogs and celebrity media that were unavailable 10 years ago. And people will be catching up on YouTube: Gary Oldman’s acceptance speech has got 1.2m views and counting.

Of course, there has always been a disconnect between Hollywood’s topline liberal mannerisms and the political establishment – and indeed the essentially conservative film business itself. Sacheen Littlefeather turning down Brando’s Godfather Oscar and making a speech about Native American rights, Vanessa Redgrave talking about Palestine , Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon attacking China about Tibet … it has always coexisted with a fairly placid mainstream reality. The stars’ political gestures always looked like extravagant couture creations on the fashion runway, while the clothing business continued to churn out jeans and T-shirts.

Branded … Emma Watson shows off her Time’s Up tattoo at the Vanity Fair Oscars party last week. Composite: WireImage/Getty Images

Perhaps what’s happening is that US celebrity is coming off the tinseltown gold standard. The old-fashioned star-system cartel is breaking up: that centrally defined Hollywood celebrity-currency which is a command economy unchanged in essence from the days of the studio system, when publicists would give fan magazines fabricated snippets from their stars’ lives for the little people to swoon over. Nowadays, celebrity is fragmented and narrowcast. People can create their own celebrity status through social media. YouTubers Jake and Logan Paul – to the bewilderment and irritation of an older generation – can claim celebrity clout to match any Hollywood thesp. And social media is where Trump accumulated the offshore celebrity capital that helped pay for his hostile takeover of the Republican party and then the US presidency.

Hollywood stars are playing parts and so are presidents: their political identity is theatrically manufactured

He’s always been obsessed with ratings; hence his staggeringly petty and undignified jibe at Arnold Schwarzenegger getting lower numbers than his as the replacement host of The Apprentice. There was a time when only TV execs were obsessed with “ratings”. Now we’re all at it. People are giving ratings to their Ocado delivery guys and Uber drivers while worrying about their own low figure. China is introducing a social-credit system . And of course the great undeclared addictive aspect of Twitter itself is monitoring how many retweets, likes and followers you’ve got.

But actually, there are old-fashioned real-time televisual events with everyone sitting down to watch together: reality shows such as The Apprentice , with their live votes. The Oscars haughtily do not permit that participatory thrill. Members of the Academy vote on who gets to win, not the humble public – who vote with their feet, buying tickets for entertainments at which the Academy generally turns up its nose.

Obsessed with ratings … Trump hosts a celebrity edition of The Apprentice. Photograph: Justin Stephens/AP

Donald Trump once had loads of submissive cameos in Hollywood movies , but this was as nothing compared to The Apprentice, in which he could appear to be a tribune of the reality-TV-loving people, and nurtured in an age of phone-in populist pseudo-democracy. But in doing so he brought off a brilliant semiotic sleight-of-hand. He never submitted to a vote: he was the judge, a position to which he was appointed like any EU commissioner. Everyone knows that the judges are the real winners, coming back week after week while the notional new talent is mostly forgotten. Trump is the starry autocrat populist, nurtured in the petri dish of TV and social media.

Do stars get to typify their own eras? Perhaps so. For some, Dustin Hoffman is the face of the 60s, with his nervy, not-especially-handsome looks and his outsider types in The Graduate (1967) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). James Cagney was the face of the 30s, an age obsessed with gangsterism with his antihero mobster in Public Enemy (1931) and then the reformed tough guy in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). And the 80s? Surely Tom Cruise with Top Gun (1986), a movie which had the US military shrewdly placing recruitment literature in cinema foyers, or maybe Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987) as the sharklike financial trader Gordon Gekko: this was the cheerfully unrepentant greed-is-good era in which Trump made his celebrity bones in New York City.

Face of the 80s … Tom Cruise, right, with Val Kilmer in Top Gun (1986). Photograph: www.ronaldgrantarchive.com

However, these people were not the authentic stars of the period. Not compared with Princess Diana, whom Camille Paglia shrewdly described as the last great silent movie star, and Ronald Reagan himself, whose celebrity became saturated in the zeitgeist only once he had forsaken Hollywood and thoroughly immersed himself in politics. Of course, Reagan alluded jovially to the cowboy roles of his youth, but always conformed to the sobriety of bearing appropriate to someone in the highest position of public life, rather as Grace Kelly put showbiz razzmatazz behind her for her new glacial role of Princess Grace of Monaco. With Trump it is different: the presidency is stardom – the same stardom – by other means.

Last great silent movie star … Princess Diana dances with John Travolta at the Reagan White House in 1985. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images

Of course, Hollywood stars are playing parts and so are the people elected president: their political identity is theatrically manufactured. As Gore Vidal said when he heard Ronald Reagan was running for California’s governor: “No, Jimmy Stewart for governor, Ronald Reagan for best friend.” But consider the difference between Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. Both appear to have predatory and abusive instincts towards women. But in the case of Weinstein, he acted the role of a dynamic liberal of the Clinton age – and Bill-Clintonism is itself a tainted issue of sexual politics . Weinstein appeared, on the surface, to be entirely on board with the progressive assumptions of the privileged Hollywood classes. He pledged $5m to fund an endowment for women film-makers at the USC School of Cinematic Arts (a pledge now rejected by the university ). This personality was part of his star persona.

Trump was very different. He never felt any compunction on that score and continues to brazen out reports of his sexual arrogance and “pussy grabbing” boasts. Nixon upset his admirers when the truth about his private foul temper and bad language was revealed – but Trump’s Twitter feed is like a Watergate tape with a loudspeaker attached. He senses that his cantankerous, boorish, semi-satirical, complacent shtick plays well and does it deliberately: the very essence of stardom.

So who can match and overturn the Trump-Twitter-tyranny of famousness? The old model of Hollywood stars backing Democrats is, if not broken, then damaged. Backing Hillary didn’t push her over the edge. So perhaps these Hollywood liberals will themselves take a tilt. Tom Hanks could make a Capraesque run or Oprah herself will try to convert her own colossal celebrity capital into a political adventure. But after five years of Trump, America may be tired, not simply of this blowhard, but of amateur star politicians generally.